FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England Patriots fans can bask in the glory of Tom Brady's nearly perfect performance. They can revel in their team's continued march to perfection as New England improved to 17-0 on Saturday night with a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
What they can't take pleasure in was the awful pass defense displayed by the home team during a 31-20 victory at Gillette Stadium.
If Saturday night was any indication, the Indianapolis Colts better fall to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday or a serious snowstorm needs to wreak havoc on next Sunday's AFC Championship game to slow down Peyton Manning and his offense. If not, the game could come down to who gets the ball last.
The Patriots defense was out of sorts against a team that wasn't strong in the passing game (ranked 20th in the regular season). New England allowed Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard to complete 22 of 33 passes for 278 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Moreover, receivers like tight end Marcedes Lewis and wideouts Ernest Wilford, Reggie Williams and Matt Jones ran through and around the Pats defense much of the night. Finally, if Dennis Northcutt hadn't dropped an apparent 21-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter that forced Jacksonville to settle for a field goal to make it 21-17, the end game for the Patriots might have been substantially different.
That fact was obvious to anyone, particularly the Patriots themselves.
"We didn't play particularly well in the first half," said safety Rodney Harrison, who essentially ended the game with an interception with 4:08 remaining. "We let them have a lot of plays."
The truly dangerous part of that assessment is that this effort didn't come against the likes of the Colts, who have Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Anthony Gonzalez and Marvin Harrison. Harrison is expected to return to the lineup against San Diego after missing 10 straight games with a left knee injury.
"We were just too excited early in the game. We had to calm down, especially me," New England linebacker Junior Seau said. "I had to settle down and let the game come to me instead of trying to force everything."
Seau couldn't pinpoint the reason for his and the rest of the squad's giddiness. For Seau, a lot of it was probably a combination of nerves (Seau was making his first appearance in the playoffs since the 1994 season).
As a whole, the defense's focus had been on stopping Jacksonville's AFC-best ground game – a physical, between-the-tackles attack run behind a massive offensive line.
Jacksonville took advantage of that to hit several big plays off play-action throws. The Jags also took advantage of some softer coverage based on the fact that the Patriots were overplaying against the run.
Unfortunately for the Jaguars, they made too many critical mistakes, like the Northcutt drop and a first-quarter fumble by Garrard. Against a team like the Patriots, little mistakes get magnified because New England makes very few errors, particularly in strategy.
Thus, once New England built an 11-point lead in the second half after the Northcutt drop and subsequent touchdown pass from Brady to Benjamin Watson, Jacksonville was out of its game. Seven of Garrard's 11 incompletions were in the fourth quarter and the New England defense was able to play the kind of situational football it feasts on.
That leads to a good argument that the Patriots wouldn't play this kind of game if the Colts were in town. They wouldn't be so focused on stopping the running game, biting so hard on every play-action fake or taking that first step forward at the snap.
Still, that doesn't explain a lot of sloppy coverage. On a fourth-and-1 play in the first half, New England cornerback Asante Samuel let Lewis get behind him for a 34-yard gain, Lewis' longest of the season. Later, Samuel got beat on a very simple inside-out adjustment by Wilford for a 6-yard touchdown.
Finally, Jones was running so free through the New England secondary on one 29-yard gain that it was hard to figure out who was supposed to be covering him. Jones also caught an 8-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give Jacksonville a brief 7-0 lead. Jones was basically by himself on the play as the Jaguars caught cornerback Ellis Hobbs flat-footed.
While Hobbs agreed with Harrison's overall defensive assessment, he maintained that those coverage mistakes were all "correctable."
Maybe so, but it was hard not to wonder what might have happened in this game if Manning were chucking the ball on such a pleasant New England evening. Linebacker Adalius Thomas refused to even consider that question.
"If 'ifs' were fifths we'd all be drunk," Thomas said.
Thomas couldn't explain exactly what that meant, but here's a good way to look at it: If Manning sees this same defense the Patriots showed against Jacksonville, a lot of New England fans will be drinking away their sorrows a week from now.